This article has been written and medically reviewed by Dr. Darshan Shingala (M.D, MPH) – a qualified and practicing medical doctor – for maximum factual accuracy and reliability.
The pain associated with an ear infection can be excruciating – leading to a lack of sleep.
All of us will experience earache at night at some point – so what’s the best way to get to sleep when you are in pain?
The best way to get to sleep with an ear infection is to take a painkiller like acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce discomfort; elevate your head with pillows or an adjustable bed to lessen painful pressure, and carefully apply a heat compress to soothe the throbbing.
The rest of this article expands upon these techniques to give you 7 actionable ways to get to sleep when you have an ear infection and ear pain.
This article was written by a qualified and practicing medical doctor, but you should always seek medical attention in the case of ear pain because your hearing is at risk.
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7 Ways to Sleep Better With an Ear Infection
Below are 7 tips that can help you to sleep better when you have an ear infection:
1: Elevate Your Head to Allow the Pressure to Release
What’s the best sleeping position if you have an ear infection?
Sleeping with your head elevated is the best sleeping position for an ear infection because it evens the pressure gradient – reducing the pain. This is ideal if the infection is in both ears but you can also sleep on the side that is not infected if you are a side sleeper (sleeping on the same side as the infected ear can make the pain worse).
The most effective way to elevate your head to reduce the pain caused by an ear infection is to use an extra pillow or elevate the upper portion of your adjustable bed – with the pillows being the most cost-effective solution and the adjustable bed being the most healthy due to the better stability and postural support.
Whilst it might not make sense to go and buy an adjustable bed just to alleviate your earache, an adjustable bed is a great long-term investment if you have chronic conditions like back pain, sleep apnea, COPD, or acid reflux because sleeping with your upper body elevated can help reduce the associated discomfort.
How Sleeping With Your Head Elevated Can Reduce the Pain of Earache
Your sleeping posture becomes crucial when you are recovering from any kind of infection, especially an ear infection (1).
It is important to choose a sleeping position that’s most suitable for you depending on the site of your infection.
For an ear infection, experts suggest sleeping in an upright position because lying with your head slightly elevated on a pillow can allow the pressure in your ear to release and cause the accumulated fluid to drain slowly – thereby easing the pain and inflammation in your ear (2).
If only one ear is affected and you are a side sleeper, then I would suggest sleeping on the healthier side in an upright position as this will allow the pressure to release and the pain to ease.
If you are not able to sleep in an upright position on a stack of pillows, then I would recommend that you try to sleep in a reclining armchair or sofa because as long as your head is elevated enough to permit the excretion of fluid buildup and release pressure effectively, then the pain will most likely dissipate.
An adjustable bed is the safest way to elevate your head because it keeps you in good posture.
2: Sleep on a Memory Foam Pillow With the Correct Height
Sleeping on a memory foam pillow that’s 4-7 inches thick (depending on your dominant sleeping position) can help to reduce the pain of an ear infection by providing better support and more contoured comfort than a regular pillow that’s the wrong height.
More specifically, your bedding – including pillows, sheets, mattress, and duvet – can substantially impact the comfort and quality of your sleep (3).
While you are recovering from an ear infection, it is imperative that you sleep comfortably in order to recover as quickly as possible.
For instance, you can opt for a memory foam pillow so that it can conform to the contours of your head and support your ear.
It is also important to be mindful of the loft size of your pillow.
I usually suggest my patients choose a mid-loft pillow which is about 4 to 5 inches thick if they are back sleepers and I suggest my side-sleeper patients opt for a high-loft pillow that is about 5 to 7 inches thick so they can obtain optimal support while sleeping.
Sleeping on a pillow that’s the wrong height can cause upper back and neck pain.
Consider an Orthopedic Mattress and Hypoallergenic Bedding
In terms of the mattress, I often prescribe an orthopedic mattress to my patients for better comfort at night.
Not only does an orthopedic mattress provide targeted support to the musculoskeletal system, but it also helps in maintaining the posture of your body by evenly distributing the body weight (4).
Several studies have reported significant improvement in the overall quality of sleep among study participants after sleeping on an orthopedic mattress for at least 28 days.
When considering changing your bedding, such as bed sheets, pillow covers, or duvet covers, I would highly suggest that you opt for hypoallergenic and natural materials such as cotton, linen, or silk.
Such fabric materials are soft, comfortable, and moisture-absorbing, which is why they are most suitable for use throughout the year.
3: Follow a Sleep Routine to Get to Sleep Faster
Following a good sleep routine before bed can help you to sleep better when you have an ear infection because it helps to set your body clock so that your mind and body can get ready for sleep.
Some of the best tips that are specific to getting to sleep faster when you have an ear infection are as follows:
3.1: Chew Gum, Eat a Snack, or Sip Water to Reduce Pressure and Pain in Your Ears
Chewing gum, eating, or drinking water before bed can help to reduce the pain from an ear infection because moving your jaw and swallowing can help to relax the muscles around your ear and reduce the pressure that’s causing the pain.
More specifically, munching on healthy snacks and hydrating before you go to sleep can definitely help you to attain a comfortable sleep while you are recovering from an ear infection (5).
This is because the swallowing motion acts as a trigger to the muscles surrounding the ear canal and enables the eustachian tubes to open up and seep out any exudate, relieve decongestion, and ease tension.
Hence, the swallowing motion can reduce the pain caused because of the pressure gradient in the ear.
If you do not feel hungry before going to bed, try chewing gum for a few minutes as it induces the same physiological effect (6).
In addition to this, drinking water and hydrating your body properly can promote decongestion of the ear canal and help you sleep well throughout the night.
3.2: Try Light Exercise and Meditation to Reduce Stress and Inflammation
Incorporating mild to moderate physical activities and meditation into your daily routine will not only boost your immune system and increase blood flow in your body but also reduce stress and any ongoing inflammatory processes in your body that may help to alleviate the pain of an ear infection (7).
More specifically, mild physical exertion can help you unclog your congested eustachian tubes.
The eustachian tubes are tiny tubular canals that connect your middle ear to your throat and help in maintaining a healthy pressure gradient.
However, when infected, this pressure leads to unnecessary tension and pain in the ear which may hinder your regular sleeping schedule.
3.3: Release the Pressure in Your Ears Manually to Reduce Pain
‘Popping’ your ears gently can help to reduce the pain in your ears when you have an ear infection.
To reduce the pressure in your ears and lessen the pain, take a deep breath and close your mouth, hold your nose tightly using your fingers or soft nasal clasps and then gently blow your nose with your mouth shut (8).
NEVER blow too hard – if your ears don’t pop under gentle pressure or the pain gets worse as you blow then stop; otherwise, you may damage your eardrum.
3.4: Try Deep Breathing to Relax Your Body
Deep breathing meditative exercises can also help you to improve the quality of your sleep when you have an ear infection (9).
I would highly recommend you to follow the below-listed steps:
- Sit in a comfortable position on your bed with your back straight, eyes closed and then begin to slowly focus on your breathing pattern – make sure that you use pillows and cushions for adequate comfort.
- Carefully identify each of your breaths and then slowly try to count each inhalation and exhalation.
- Make sure you are breathing through your nose at all times and try to hold your breath for a minimum of 5 seconds before you exhale out the air slowly from your mouth.
- Try to release all your muscle tension, focus on your breathing pattern, play any soothing music of your choice in the background – I recommend that you play a peaceful frequency tone of around 432 Hz as provided by the video above (10).
- Repeat these steps as many times as you prefer or until you eventually start to feel relaxed and sleepy.
3.5: Try a Warm Shower to Aid Muscle Relaxation (Avoid Getting Water in Your Ears)
It would be a good idea to take a warm shower before bedtime in order to relax your body when you have an ear infection.
It is important to keep in mind the temperature of the water, meaning that the water should neither be too hot or too cold (11).
While you are recovering from an ear infection, you should make sure that the water does not enter your affected ear while you take a shower by avoiding shampooing your hair and also using a shower cap.
Depending on which part of your ear is infected, your doctor may also suggest that you plug your ears with a cotton swab slathered in petroleum jelly or an antibiotic ointment.
In case the water gets into your ears, I strongly advise you to refrain from using Q-tips as they may make the infection worse.
Instead, talk to your physician or visit your doctor’s office for a quick checkup.
4: Apply a Warm Compress to Reduce Ear Pain
Research suggests that heat compression therapy when applied at a comfortable temperature can act as an effective source of pain relief from an ear infection.
In addition to reducing pain, heat compression therapy may also help to reduce any congestion in the ear canals and reduce the pressure – helping you to get to sleep faster (12).
There are several ways to apply heat in compression therapy:
- Use a hot water bag containing warm water and place it for about 20 to 30 seconds on the affected ear. You can repeat this a few times until you feel a sense of relief.
- Use a warm cloth soaked in water inside a plastic bag (ensure there are no holes as you want to avoid getting water in your ear).
- Use a rice sock, wheat bag, or heat pad – you can heat them up to avoid water completely.
Use Heat Therapy With Caution – Consult Your Doctor First
Do not overdo compression heat therapy.
I advise you to be extra cautious regarding the temperature of the water and strictly avoid using water that is too hot because it may damage or even burn the skin surrounding the ear (13).
I would like to emphasize the importance of consulting your doctor before making any changes to your treatment plan, including the addition of a new therapy such as compression heat therapy.
5: Reduce Distractions to Avoid Overstimulation
For sleeping comfortably with an ear infection, I suggest that you try to minimize any distractions when you approach your bedtime so that you are not overstimulated.
For example, a noisy atmosphere, a disproportionately bright ambiance, flashy bedroom lights, and extensive use of light-emitting mobile devices before going to sleep can significantly disrupt your sleep pattern (14).
I suggest that you establish a calm and silent environment in your bedroom and make sure that your room is dimly lit at least two hours prior to your bedtime.
These small changes will help you to release tension, minimize ear pressure, forget about the pain transiently, and intrinsically prepare you to fall asleep rather quickly.
Try using some additional sleep aids such as a sleeping eye mask to block out light, a mobile phone application that can monitor your gadget usage and schedule your screen time, or an additional body-hugging pillow for extra support and comfort at night (15).
6: Keep the Room Temperature at 16-19 Degrees Celsius
The ideal bedroom temperature at night should be between 16 to 19 degrees Celsius or 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit because this temperature is lower than our core body temperature and it helps us to fall asleep quickly (16, 17).
This temperature range will also help your immune system to perform better and recover from the ear infection and fever faster.
A high bedroom temperature can make your fever last longer and may also lead to excessive sweating that may cause dehydration.
The association between the thermal ambiance and the quality of your sleep can be explained by the connection between the body’s homeostasis and circadian rhythm (18).
7: See a Doctor if Symptoms Persist Beyond 48 Hours
If your ear infection fails to resolve, your ear pain worsens suddenly, or your symptoms continue to persist for more than 48 hours then you should see a doctor (19).
In the meantime, it is imperative that you do not attempt to poke at your affected ear as this can make things much worse.
I would also advise you to strictly refrain from self-medicating yourself with ear drops or strong medications such as antibiotics.
If the pain is significant, you can take a painkiller such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen which is readily available over the counter.
Ear Infection and Sleep FAQ
Below are the answers to common questions related to ear infections and sleep:
What is an Ear Infection?
The medical term for inflammation or infection of the ear is otitis.
Based on the anatomy of the ear, ear infections can be broadly classified into three different categories: otitis externa, otitis media, and otitis interna.
Otitis externa is the infection of the external ear and it affects the outer ear and ear canal.
The layman term for otitis externa is swimmer’s ear.
The ear becomes tender and the patients usually complain of pain when the ear is pulled (20).
Otitis media is an infection of the middle ear.
It is a painful condition as the middle ear becomes clogged with inflammatory fluid behind the eardrum.
Depending on the individual case, some patients may require a minor in-office surgical procedure such as a myringotomy in order to effectively manage the infection (21).
Otitis interna is an infection of the inner ear and it affects the sensors of hearing and balance.
This condition is also sometimes referred to as labyrinthitis or vestibular neuritis.
The most common symptoms of otitis interna are vertigo, dizziness, and a ringing sound in the ears known as tinnitus.
It is important that you visit your doctor in case of otitis interna because delayed treatment can lead to some serious complications such as diminished hearing, permanent loss of hearing, and constant acute pain in the ear.
What Causes Ear Infections?
Ear infections can be caused by bacteria, cold viruses, and flu viruses – earache can be caused by injury or a symptom of another condition like tonsillitis.
More specifically, several different causative agents are responsible for ear infections -Streptococcus pneumoniae and Hemophilus influenzae are the most common microorganisms that cause ear infections (22).
In addition to bacteria, cold and flu viruses can also cause ear infections (22).
Earache can also occur due to an inner ear injury which can be caused by scratching, earwax, or fluid buildup in the middle ear.
Earache can also sometimes be a symptom of tonsillitis, a dental abscess, or temporomandibular joint pain.
How Long Do Ear Infections Last?
Mild to moderate ear infections tend to start clearing up within 4 days for most patients (23).
However, severe infections may damage the inner membrane of the ear and it may take up to a week or two to achieve a status of complete recovery.
In any case, I would strongly advise you to visit your doctor for a check-up and an accurate assessment of the severity of your ear infection.
How Are Ear Infections Treated?
The treatment of an ear infection depends on various factors such as the age of the patient, the causative pathogen, and the site of infection such as the inner, middle, or outer ear.
Otitis interna – which is the infection of the inner ear – tends to resolve by itself.
If your ear infection is of a bacterial origin, then your doctor would prescribe you an antibiotic either in an oral form or a droplet form.
If the ear infection is viral or fungal in origin, then antibiotic tablets or drops would be of no help.
If a fungal agent is responsible for your ear infection, your doctor would prescribe you with antifungal ear drops.
In case of a severe infection, your doctor may prescribe you painkiller tablets or steroid containing eardrops to help with the pain and swelling.
In case of recurring infections and bacterial sepsis, surgical interventions such as drainage or removal of the adenoids by an ENT surgeon is recommended (24).
How Should You Not Treat an Ear Infection?
Anyone with an ongoing ear infection must refrain from using expired medication, self-medicate with steroid drugs, or use an antibiotic or antifungal ear drop without prescription.
I would suggest that you do not use the same cotton swab for both ears – as this may spread the infection from the infected ear to the non-infected ear or push the debris deeper into the inner ear and may even lead to permanent damage in your ear.
In case of a fungal infection, even washing your ears with water may worsen the situation as the tap water contains microorganisms that may aggravate the infection.
Moreover, there may even be some undesirable complications such as loss of hearing as the water helps the fungus thrive better.
You should not scratch, itch, or drain any pus accumulation in or around the affected ear without medical intervention.
Why Are Ear Infections Worse at Night?
Ear infections tend to be more painful at night due to an increased immune response and an increase in pressure in the ear due to lying down.
Cortisol levels in our blood decrease at night – making it easy for the white blood cells (WBCs) to detect the infection and attack the causative agent (25).
This immune response results in symptoms like chills, congestion, fever, or sweating, thereby making the infection feel worse at night time.
In addition to this, during the day our head is positioned vertically which allows air to freely flow through the narrow lumen of the Eustachian tubes.
But at night, the lumen becomes narrower because we are in the lying position – so the air ventilation becomes difficult which can cause pain.
Also, the presence of a pressure gradient in the middle ear because of fluid or pus buildup can make you feel worse during the night.
How Can You Stop Earache Fast?
The fastest way to stop earache is to take a painkiller like ibuprofen or paracetamol and apply a warm compress.
A warm compress from a heating pad or a warmed gel pack may help you to get quick relief from earache because the warmth from the pack will help to reduce the pain and swelling.
Gargling with salt water may benefit you because most often earaches are associated with symptoms of a sore throat.
You can also take over-the-counter painkillers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to get instant pain relief from your earache.
It is always recommended to visit your doctor for a detailed assessment of the reason behind your earache.
Your doctor may prescribe you appropriate medication in the form of either oral tablets or ear drops or both.
In some cases, your doctor may also refer you to an ENT specialist for conducting additional audiometric assessment which includes tests to judge the extent to which your hearing may be affected.
Which Side Should You Sleep On With a Clogged Ear?
It is recommended that you sleep on the opposite (healthy) side to the clogged ear – sleeping upright is the best sleeping position when one or both ears are blocked because this allows the pressure to lessen which can help with drainage and pain reduction.
Conclusion: Seek Medical Assistance Quickly
If you have ear pain then you should seek medical help quickly because an ear infection that is left untreated can potentially cause hearing loss.
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No part of this article or website offers medical advice – always consult with a qualified medical professional for the best guidance.
Image Attribution and Licencing
Main image: ‘Sick Man With Ear Pain’ by Millkos (Getty Images) used with permission under the terms of Canva’s One Design Use License Agreement.
Dan is the founder and head content creator at Bedroom Style Reviews.
He has been working as a professional online product reviewer since 2015 and was inspired to start this website when he ended up sleeping on a memory foam mattress that was too soft and gave him backache.
Through in-depth research and analysis, Dan’s goal with this website is to help others avoid such pitfalls by creating the best online resource for helping you find your ideal mattress, bedding, and bedroom furniture.
Dan is a qualified NVQ Level 2 Fitness Instructor with 6 years’ experience helping clients improve their health through diet, exercise, and proper sleep hygiene.
He also holds several college and university-level qualifications in health sciences, psychology, mathematics, art, and digital media creation – which helps him to publish well researched and informative product reviews as well as articles on sleep, health, wellbeing, and home decor.
Dan also has direct personal experience with insomnia, anxiety, misophonia (hypersensitivity to sounds), and pain from both acute and long-standing sporting injuries – he enjoys writing insightful articles around these subjects to help fellow sufferers of such conditions.
Learn more about Dan here.